The fox snake is a type of rat snake found in North America. This snake’s common name has two possible origins. First, one of its scientific names, vulpinus, means “fox-like”. This designation was given to the fox snake in honor of Reverend Charles Fox, an agricultural specialist who collected these snakes. The second origin of the fox snake’s name comes from the snake’s musk, which smells similar to the odor of a fox. Fox snakes are excellent pest controllers throughout the upper midwestern United States and Canada. These snakes are richly colored with distinct and boldly patterned bodies. Let’s take a closer look at this beautiful snake and discover just how long the largest fox snake on record is!
What Does the Fox Snake Look Like?
Fox snakes average between 36-54 inches in length, although the largest fox snake on record was much longer. The fox snake has an oval head with a short and flattened snout. There is no distinction between the snake’s neck and its orange, dark copper, rust-red, or bronze head. The rest of the snake’s body is a different color than its head, and is usually yellow, golden, gray, brown, or greenish-brown. Dark spots or blotches run along the middle of the snake’s back, with some smaller blotches on its sides. Its belly is checkered with yellow and black. Fox snakes also have a pointy tail.
There are two subspecies of Fox Snakes: the Eastern Fox Snake and the Western Fox Snake. Although these two snakes can look quite similar, they do not live in the same ranges, and there are some visual differences.
The Eastern Fox Snake, for example, has fewer dark blotches along its back than the Western Fox Snake. These blotches are also slightly larger than those of the western fox snake. These markings are black, chocolate-brown, or reddish-brown in color, and there are also smaller blotches along the sides of the snake’s yellow-colored body. Young eastern fox snakes look like the adult snakes, except with lighter or paler colors.
The western fox snake has smaller black or brown blotches running down its back. Western fox snakes also have dark rings on their tails. Young western fox snakes typically have more gray tones in their coloration, as well as dark lines on their heads. One dark line runs from each eye to the snake’s jaw, with another dark line across its face between the eyes.
What is the Largest Fox Snake on Record?
On average fox snakes are typically 36-54 inches long. However, these snakes can grow to more than 60 inches in length. But the longest fox snake on record was a whole 10 inches longer, measuring in at 70 ½ inches long!
How big is a 70-inch snake? For comparison, the largest corn snake ever recorded was about 74 inches long. Another snake that has a very similar length to the largest fox snake is the black racer. The largest black racer on record measured about 6 feet in length.
If you’re curious what the largest type of rat snake is, you’ll need to look eastward to Malaysia. The book, “The Field Guide to Reptiles of South-East Asia” has documentation on a keeled rat snake that reached more than 13 feet in length!
Where Do Fox Snakes Live?
Both species of fox snake live in North America. However, the ranges of these two snakes do not overlap, and they each live in different types of habitats. The eastern fox snake lives east of the Mississippi River in Michigan and Ohio. It can also be found in Ontario, Canada. This snake prefers wetland habitats, like swamps and marshes.
The western fox snake, on the other hand, lives west of the Mississippi River. This snake can be found in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. Western fox snakes commonly live in woodland or forested areas and along forested edges of rivers. They can also be found in farmlands and prairies. Although the western fox snake does not typically venture into urban areas, it does tend to live in more rural regions, near houses, farms, barns, and sheds with plenty of rodents to hunt.
During the fall and spring months fox snakes are active during the day. When it gets too hot or too cold for them, these snakes burrow underground or beneath rocks and logs. Fox snakes can climb and swim quite well, although they seem to prefer spending most of their time on the ground.
Are Fox Snakes Dangerous?
Fox snakes are nonvenomous and harmless to humans. Unfortunately, these snakes are commonly mistaken for more dangerous snakes like copperheads and rattlesnakes. Like their name, adult copperhead snakes have copper-colored heads and necks. Many people who are unfamiliar fox snakes see their copper-colored heads and automatically assume that they must be copperhead snakes as well. Because of this, they often kill or injure fox snakes out of fear. However, fox snakes are docile and are not at all dangerous to humans. Although fox snakes can bite, they will only do so if they are harassed or provoked.
Fox Snakes vs. Copperheads and Rattlesnakes
Becoming more familiar with different snake species can help you to stay safe and protect snakes as well. For example, copperhead snakes are usually smaller than fox snakes, and typically do not grow longer than 36 inches. These snakes also have much larger, widely spaced blotches shaped like hourglasses. In addition, copperhead snakes are pit vipers and have wide heads with vertical pupils. They also have heat-sensing “pits” near their nostrils (these pits look like the snake has an extra set of nostrils).
Juvenile copperhead snakes, however, can look a lot more like a fox snake. These younger copperheads are reddish, light-brown, or dark gray, with dark spots. Unfortunately, this is very similar to many rat snakes, including the fox snake. However, many juvenile copperhead snakes also have a bright green tail, whereas fox snakes do not.
A fox snake can sometimes be mistaken for a rattlesnake as well. This is because when a fox snake feels threatened, it will hiss and vibrate its tail against leaves to make a loud rattling sound. The fox snake also releases a musk from its anal glands with a foul smell to make it less appetizing to potential predators. When it doubt, it is always best to give an unidentified snake a wide berth and leave it alone.
What Do Fox Snakes Eat?
The fox snake is a constrictor and a carnivore. This snake wraps its body around its prey and squeezes until it stops breathing, then swallows it whole. Fox snakes eat rodents, young rabbits, birds, and eggs. Young fox snakes often eat smaller reptiles or amphibians.
Fox snakes are fairly common and are currently listed as “least concern” by the IUCN. However, fox snakes are in danger of habitat loss, indiscriminate killing, and road mortality. In some areas, fox snakes are protected by state laws.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Ryan M. Bolton/Shutterstock.com
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